Mont Saint-Michel – You’re going to need a bigger camera

As a younger man I was aware of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Montmartre and most of the Parisienne tourist draws. But if asked to name a spot outside of the Paris I would have been hard pressed. Later in life this changed when we discovered Mont Saint-Michel. The first time we visited we stayed in a motorhome aire that was located in a field. Yes, a field, filled with grass, grazing sheep and nothing else. But those sheep kept the grass short enough for motorhomes to bed down for the night and the location allowed an amazing view of ‘the Mont’ when eating breakfast on a crisp September morning. 

Ten years later the Mont has been revamped in an effort to de-silt the bay, the old causeway has been replaced  with a bridge and the aire has, unfortunately, been shut down. But the Mont is as breathtaking as ever. Mont Saint-Michel was originally established as an abbey atop a rocky island in the bay and was only accessible at low tides which provided with it a natural defence as would-be attackers would generally be rendered helpless (or dead) as the tidal waters rushed in to surround the rock. This natural defence lead to the abbey and becoming more fortified and enlarged over the years. And the abbey, village and fortifications have stood the test of time and are visited by millions of tourists every year.

To get to Mont Saint-Michel is relatively straightforward but don’t expect to be able to drive right up to the front gates. Visitors have to park their cars at designated sites and either walk or avail of the free shuttle buses that ferry people to and from the Mont all day long. We cycled and parked just before the start of the new bridge at the designated bike parking area. There are approximately 70 bicycle parking spaces just outside the main entrance but they fill up quite early so some cyclists just chain their bikes together and leave them against the rocks outside.  

Obligatory photo of the landward side of Mont Saint-Michel.
This image was taken at peak time with a steady stream of pedestrians and buses heading towards the historic site.  
In case you hadn’t guessed from the photo Mont Saint-Michel is in France and is home to a large medieval abbey … and it’s old … and traditional … and picturesque … and French.

We visited the Mont twice in the one day. Originally we arrived at about 11:30 and the approach and the Mont itself were thronged. The advantage of visiting early is that you can avail of the guided tours or many gift shops and expensive eateries. A meal in a restaurant on the Mont is approximately twice what you might to expect to pay in any of the local towns. We even strayed into a really cool looking sweet shop but nearly dropped when we got a figure of €10 for a small bag of sweets. Expressing our shock the lady pointed to the sign on the wall noting sweets were €8.25 per 100g which is €82.50 per kilo! So I think it’s fair to conclude that food is expensive. This means that a lot of people bring their own food and picnic on the island, which inevitably leads to seagulls swarming around looking for scraps and fighting over food so be vigilant if you’re trying to grab a bite to eat outside. 

One of MSMs many seagulls. Leaving its mark on one of the roofs. There are lots of seagulls on Mont Saint-Michel aggressively fighting over discarded scraps of food and even crapping on passing tourists. Don’t get fooled by the picturesque backdrop, seagulls on MSM are assholes, just like everywhere else. 

I brought my usual camera with me and while I normally feel its size makes it stick out like a sore thumb, in the setting of MSM it looked downright average. Clearly I can’t pass up on a good photo opportunity but the place abounds with snappers so I’d imagine there isn’t an inch of the place that hasn’t been photographed to death.

After arriving at the Mont around mid day we found it is slow to get around due to the large crowds. So it wasn’t really for us. We decided to go back to the campsite, have a nice dinner and head back when things had quietened down. Second time around we could cycle right up to the gates and avail of the on-site bike parking. There were no large crowds so we could explore as we saw fit. At this time of day the majority of shops are closed, the tours are finished and only the restaurants remain open and were moderately busy when we visited. I would have liked to have done the tour of the abbey but was happy to sacrifice the tour for the relative quiet.

Bicycle parking at Mont Saint Michel: The gateway near the centre of the frame is the entrance to the small bike parking yard, the giant yellow ball behind the building is the setting sun, the water in front of the gateway is the evening tide, the tracks in the foreground are the tracks we left cycling through said tide and the people to the right of the frame arrived 5 minutes after us and I can only assume are trying to figure out how to get to their bikes without getting wet shoes.

Despite the historic and cultural significance of Mont Saint-Michel it is interesting and exciting enough to keep children amused. The fortifications provide plenty of scope for exciting exploration with lots of nooks and crannies to discover. The gift shops also have a significant amount of trinkets to catch the eye of souvenir fanciers and an abundance of real and mock weaponry to draw the eye of weapon-obsessed young (and old) boys. If you or your children have a sweet tooth remember to pack a treat rather than trying to buy something on the island.

Overall, Mont Saint-Michel is worth a visit for both young and old. The locally located campsite in Pontorson provides easy access along the cycle path and the site itself is sufficiently vast to provide a day or two of exploration and discovery opportunities. Nearby you will find Alligator Bay which provides an extra point of interest and a possible stop off on your way back from the island.